CONNECTIONS: A brief history of fake news

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By Tuesday, Feb 13 Life In the Berkshires  6 Comments
An 1835 illustration from the New York Sun depicting life on the moon.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Donald Trump did not invent fake news.

On August 26, 1835, the New York Sun reported the discovery of life on the moon. After that, it was a short step to report existence of a telescope powerful enough to view the moon’s surface. Accompanying the article was a rendering of what they saw. The ploy worked; the Sun’s sales rose exponentially. The man who invented the “news,” Sun editor Richard Adams Locke, was amazed that anyone believed it.

Remember the Maine? Of course you do; it was the proximate cause of the war with Spain in 1898. “Remember the Maine” was the literal battle cry. You probably do not remember that it was fake news. On Feb. 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, killing the 260 American sailors aboard. There ends the facts; no one has ever determined what caused the explosion. Unfazed, William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) and Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) saw the opportunity. They blamed Spain and started a war.

An artists’s depiction of the explosion of the USS Maine

It was not just “yellow journalists” who mangled the truth. Respected columnist H. L. Menken, when asked “Why do you tell lies like that?” replied, “It made a good story, didn’t it?”

From unicorns on the moon to stealth bombers, people do believe fake news. From editors blatantly trying to sell papers by any means to columnists courting readers to publishers trying to shape national policy, the people believe the fake news as readily as they believe the truth.

While similar, that is not quite what is happening today. Trump did not invent fake news, but he gives it a modern spin. He doesn’t make up the news; he simply labels the truth as lies. He is not selling papers; he is selling himself and his singular view of reality. He is “fighting back” against anyone he feels attacked him or did not sufficiently respect him. Why do it with fake news?

Consider early Pittsfield. The population was less than 2,000; most residents were farmers, not merchants; the condition of the roads was terrible, the closest post office was in Springfield and mail was delivered into Berkshire County only when there was “sufficient inducement” for someone to make the trip. It is remarkable that anyone thought they could start a newspaper, and yet there was a newspaper as early as 1787. With little hope for advertising revenue and less hope for reliable delivery, the first issue appeared Oct. 23, 1787.

It was called the American Centinel. Its masthead read: “Here you may travel the world from pole to pole; Increase your knowledge and delight your soul.” Probably promising more than it could deliver, the American Centinel survived a brief 19 months and closed in May 1789. Yet it was filled with reports of momentous events.

Image courtesy stock.adobe.com

One month before the launch of the Centinel, on Sept. 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States was completed and disseminated. The battle was engaged: it had to be ratified by each of the 13 colonies. There was no American citizen or American newspaper without an opinion on ratification. While the states considered whether to become part of the union, the American Centinel churned out copy. Blatantly Federalist, the Centinel urged the creation of the United States and adoption of the federal constitution as the law of the land: “Thus will America be a second time rescued from desolation and confusion” and “all united…shall seek the general good.”

Debate about ratifying was more contentious in Massachusetts than one might think. The vote to ratify was 187–168, not an overwhelming majority. Through it all, in its 10-by-15-inch paper, the Centinel gave space to both sides of the issue. Publisher E. Russell did so because he “was seeking the common good.” That was unusual in early America. At the beginning of our country, newspapers made their political affiliations part of their mastheads. Three newspapers in our area were called the Hampshire Federalist, the Berkshire County Republican and the Berkshire County Whig. They enthusiastically slanted the news in favor of their political beliefs and energetically slammed their political rivals. What their arguments lacked in clarity, or sense, they made up for in heat. The Centinel gave even coverage to both sides and stood apart. While proponents were painting images of utopia, opponents were sowing seeds of fear.

One bit of fear mongering was: “If the states were united, the new country would crown George Washington king; once again we will be subjects, not citizens.”

Fomenting fear to drive policy is a political technique older than the country. Exaggeration, scandal-mongering and sensationalism have been part of the news from the beginning, and have always and invariably done two things: sold papers and sowed division. There were, however, sacred cows. No one exposed secrets that threatened our safety – at least not without consequence. Everyone respected the institutions and offices of our government and stopped short of challenging them. Representatives of the three branches of government and the fourth estate each played their role and fought to preserve the checks and balances. Then, fake news and the claim of fakery did not threaten our form of government; does it now?


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6 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Steve Farina says:

    “Publisher E. Russell did so because he “was seeking the common good.” That was unusual in early America.”
    It is unusual even today!
    Even in this article you can’t seem to help but bash the current President, while ignoring other politicians, and especially (as one would expect from an article on “fake news”) multiple news sources that routinely cycle falsehoods and truths.
    Perhaps this publication should be renamed:
    “The Berkshire Edge Democrat”
    As an example, with all the press given here about how ‘terrible’ Rep. Faso is in NY19, coupled with the press given to opposition groups (all Democrat) and potential Democrat cadidate’s positions on dead legislation – the Edge has somehow missed highlighting this:
    http://www.cnn.com/2018/02/07/entertainment/diane-neal-law-order-congress/
    Also, no coverage of good results such as the (R) Rep Faso supporting the tax bill which has led to increased take home pay for many , pay increases, one time bonuses, and increased starting pay for many in our community, but also to INCREASED giving to local non-profits (counter to the fear inspired headline used in The Edge to describe the new law). See my comments with factual examples here:
    https://theberkshireedge.com/berkshire-nonprofits-fear-new-republican-tax-law-may-discourage-charitable-giving/

    Apparently it is foolish of me to desire a news source that ” gives space to both sides of the issue” because it “is seeking the common good.”

    1. Linda Hemingway says:

      Perhaps you should just stop reading The Berkshire Edge and move on to news outlets more comfortable to your style of thinking…

      1. Steve Farina says:

        Linda, are you suggesting that from concern for my reading habits or because you don’t want me to comment with my opinion? I happen to appreciate that The Edge allows for a comment section, which is part of the reason why I chose to pay for a membership when they solicited voluntary financial support.
        It is a local source of information, which happens to have a biased political slant seen in many articles. While I recognize my views are in the minority (not being a Democrat – nor Republican for that matter) it is reaffirming to receive the frequent affirmative support given me by many people as I walk down Main St, or into Big-Y, or other areas around GB referencing my position on subjects, as well as my flat out willingness to share them.
        It would be nice to have news and views that are not homogenized, which areissue and results based regardless of political aligment.
        Reporting with unbiased presentation can go a long way in healing our political (and cultural) divide. Why else would we have “The fourth estate”?

    2. Linda Hemingway says:

      Steve – Please reread the CONNECTIONS disclaimer at the top. It was a history lesson. No period in the history of this country has been without its sins of “fake news”, and I, for one, learned something from it. I too am neither a Democrat or Republican – have never registered in either party. I prefer to vote based on evidence of verifiable fact, on visible respect to all, on a proven track record of kindness and humility. Those measures have left me with meager choices over the years, but especially now.
      And yes, my initial response did include some concern regarding your health. Anger is a cancer of the heart, soul and spirit. As a health care professional I’ve seen it destroy many, with strokes, heart attacks and death. Let it go…

      1. Steve Farina says:

        Hi Linda, thank you so much for your concern about my health (though i did say reading habits). I can assure you that I am in near optimum health, and also that I am not angry.
        If you go a little further up the page from the CONNECTIONS disclaimer you will see The Edge credo in the banner: ” news and views worth sharing”(or worth “having”, depending on what platform you are using).
        I am merely expressing my view that many of the contributors to this publication show an anti-Trump/anti-republican bias.
        For instance, in this article about fake news there is the opening statement “Donald Trump did not invent fake news.” The article continues with example of fake news reports from various news sources during the history of our country. It continues to negatively represent the President in regard to fake news essentially attributing him as a source of news;he is not.
        If this were truly a rant, um I mean history lesson, about fake news the opening line one might expect to see might read something Drudgelike such as:
        ” WAPONYTCNNFOXMSNBC did not invent fake news.”
        This would be followed in the body with comparisons of news sources, not an attempt to disparage the President once again as seen so often in this publication.
        It is my opinion that it is past time to stop presenting half to three fourths of the articulations in this publication with such clear bias, disdain, and anger (the othere are apolitical). To use your phrase, it is time for the many contributors to present unbiased pieces, release their hatred for the one accused of hatred, and let it go.
        Let us be a part of healing the political divide plaguing our community, our region and our nation, not a part of propagating it.

  2. Anthony Ehrlich says:

    Congratulations to Carole Owens for providing a bit of history, some of it local, to help us put “the news” in perspective. As she notes, there has always been inaccurate reporting by current media and always fear mongering by politicians to promote themselves and their policies. But before 45, there has never been a chief executive to use the term “fake news” so frequently and so virulently to attack little people with no influence or power, as well as folks who are just doing their jobs.

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